I had another post ready to go today, but it just seemed ridiculously trivial after hearing about Prince’s death yesterday. But this is an art blog and I feel like thinking in more obituary terms
right now so… instead, let’s dial the wayback machine to 2011 and look
out at how a music video with Prince got made. As I type this, the news just came in and I still can’t believe it nor imagine it to be true. I don’t know what happened to him or any of the circumstances surrounding his death, other than he had been found in the elevator leading up and out from his studio. Either way, even the black wings of Death itself seems a trivial gnat to take down such an icon of music and at such a goddamned young age. Memeories are all any of us have left of Prince, and no new ones will be made ever again, so that’s where I am today. Remembering Cinnamon Girl.
When Rick Fuller and Phil Harder approached me to work with them to make a music video for Prince’s new single of Musicology I of course did not for a second hesitate to say yes. I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured if I was going to humiliate myself, this is the place to do it spectacularly. Like everyone else of my generation who came of age when 1999 and Purple Rain dropped on us like a bomb, meeting Prince alone would be more than enough, but working alongside him on a project was not something you say no to. For the record talking casually with Prince requires, like watching an episode of Deadwood: You let the language wash over you until you suddenly start picking up on the groovy tone and manner and then english becomes understandable. He was too cool for school and every damned word out of his mouth was like liquified velvet that was halfway past your nose before you even had a chance to notice. He could smooth talk Godzilla into taking less sugar at tea time. He could subdue Emperor Palpatine into hand-delivering flowers to every orphan child in New Jersey. He could sweet-talk concrete into butter. So between laughs and serious talk about what 9/11 meant to us, where we had been and what we wanted to do, the arc of the video began to come together.
I’d never done a music video nor even spent too much time with film before this so taking my first lap around the block on a project of this scale and magnitude, and with PRINCE for chrissakes, was a bit dizzying. The idea as put forth by Phil Harder, the video’s director, was to tell the story of a young muslim schoolgirl in NYC, and watch how she goes from equal classmate down to suspect and presumed enemy by everyone around her due to no act or fault of her own. She’s branded as a terrorist, her family’s bodega is vandalized, her friends abandon her… everywhere she goes she is told she is a weapon by hateful scared people, and so she imagines herself as one. She makes a martyr video, she enters JFK airport and ignites her bomber’s-vest in the waiting area. Isn’t that what terrorists are supposed to do? Isn’t that what everyone is now telling her her she is? This is what you want, this is what you get.
Needless to say it was deeply controversial at the time, even though it was relatively soft as far as socially conscious protest songs go. Not until I dared make a children’s picture book illustrating President Obama’s inaugural address did I encounter as much hate mail from a project as I did for doing Cinnamon Girl. Keisha Castle Hughes, fresh off the success of Whale Rider played the titular girl in the video to incredible effect, suffered the most I think. Her career got sidetracked by the backlash for a good while, (though recently revived by her stint on Game of Thrones). Even as Prince caught endless amounts of flack for it, I don’t think any of us felt like we regretted doing it. Even so, I guess that speaks a lot about the people and that time we were in.
The idea was to make a video with live actors but animated everywhere else. Given the schedule we had to storyboard and shoot the footage first, and then draw in the rest afterward, which sounds fine until you’re the guy who has to do the drawing. As much tape and basic prop indicators as could be utilized to help denote spacial hooks for the art so the perspective lines and rooms they’d be in would seem natural, retro engineering it all, especially given all the various angles was tricky. and by tricky I mean sort of insane. I was just finishing Freaks of the Heartland at the time- so all the art reflected that murky inky watercolor feel of that particular book. Which fit our grim lil film rather well.
You have to understand while 2011 isn’t exactly a million years ago in tech terms, it’s nearly paleolithic. Animating still art with green screen live action footage and all the rest was a lot trickier and more time consuming then than it is now. I was living out in Cummington at the time, which is the Western Massachusetts equivalent of Mars, so the only internet access I had was a satellite system which for the record was utter horse-poo. The art files were too large and too many and we had daily shooting and artmaking schedule to maintain. So when I was working from home, I would have to drive out to the FEDEX hub near Pittsfield, MA, to pick up the previous day’s dailies, race home and work up art in time to drive back out again before the 5 pm pickup so they could have the files to work on the next morning. Back and for and back again like this for weeks. WEEKS of this. While Phil managed to tape as much as he could, he had to do so with this likewise green masking tape, which often got lost when shot with digital film, and as a result, in many instances I had just a few props or other indicators to draw in believable ground, walls, cars, buildings, etc… to fill in what wasn’t there. It was largely eyeballed on my part and it made my brain feel like tapioca more often than not… but I had those daily drives to reset my brain. So there was that.
So. In the middle of all this Sony music was getting really worried about what we were doing. They saw some of the roughs and it just made them more panicky. You have to remember at the time, no one had really found a way to talk about 9/11 scared shitless as we all were. No one wanted to cause trouble and to Sony that’s all we were up to: trouble. They began reaching in and trying to dumb stuff down, soften other bits up… and again, the video is admittedly a very soft punch as a thing unto itself, so there wasn’t a lot of what Sony was saying that made any sense. So during one phone call when Prince had had enough, he came back on to let us know he’d essentially fired Sony from the project, and he was going to finance and distribute all himself. He was the boss now. From there on it was just us kids in the sandbox, playing. Prince was our final vote and he loved everything we did, came in and tweaked a few scenes here and there, re-shot some performance footage he thought he could do again better, and essentially let us do what we do. That is when I truly fell in love with the man. He wouldn’t even let WB have his name, if he didn’t feel like it was his anymore. This was not a dude who sat meekly. In
the end I learned my first and most important lesson in working with
big personalities and celebrity: If they are King Kong, make sure you’re
I think we can all agree 2016 has been a bloodbath of fallen icons, even in its early few months. I don’t know what’s going on. Even as I conclude this post I still can’t believe I now live in a world without Prince in it. He seemed as young during this brief experience in 2011 as he did when I first saw him in concert in 1985 and I honestly thought he would live forever. Or at least outlive me, (which from my perspective is forever). He danced on top of pianos and ran around the studio like a bumble bee and made us all feel like old retirees at a shuffleboard tournament. He was always an artist’s artist and a kind-hearted goofball who could laugh at himself and switchblade back to hammer-on-table seriousness. Prince seemed like a man who had zero to prove to the world. He had a lot of personal tragedy in his life and a lot more joy and success and he died in his home studio, working and making his art as he always did. That seems right in some way, despite coming way too early. One of my biggest regrets is missing taking him up on the invitation to see him perform in Boston and hang out after, but I had a deadline and his video needed finishing first. He provided both the temptation and the block! I figured I would catch him later, but I never did. I wish I knew him more but I think even those closest to him would say the same. There was always more there there. Except now.
Godspeed Prince Rogers Nelson. I’m glad our paths crossed even if briefly and moreso so that we could for that brief moment make art together. We’ll all see you again before we know it, but even so, it will be too long a wait before we do.
If you’d like to see the video, you can find a low rez link via my website
Greg Ruth has been working in comics since 1993 and has published work for The New York Times, DC Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Dark Horse Comics, Harper Collins, Hyperion, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster amongst many others.
He has shown his paintings in New York, Houston, and Baltimore, and exhibited a series of murals at New York's Grand Central Terminal.
He has also helped craft music videos for Rob Thomas, and Prince, and has illustrated children's pictures books including; Our Enduring Spirit (with President Barack Obama), A Pirate's Guide to First Grade (with James Preller) and Red Kite, Blue Kite (with Ji Li Jiang), as well as many illustrated novels.
Greg currently lives and works in Western Massachusetts.